It’s been nearly two decades since the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, but full withdrawal remains the subject of heated debate.
In this episode, we sit down with Will Ruger, Vice President for Research and Policy at the Charles Koch Institute. He is also President Trump’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
Beyond his take on Afghanistan withdrawal, we discuss the Abraham Accords, the communist China threat, and American foreign policy more broadly, focused on an approach of “realism and restraint.”
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Will Ruger, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Will Ruger: Thank you for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: So Will, you’re President Trump’s nominee for the ambassadorship to Afghanistan, you are an expert in the region. And so I actually wanted to start by talking about something related that’s in the news these days, which is the National Defense Authorization Act (the NDAA), and just this interesting situation where it’s been passed by a veto-proof House majority now, as far as we know, and yet the president has been threatening to veto it. And some marked members of the Republican Party—the House Freedom Caucus—has kind of stood behind on the presidential side. What’s happening here with the NDAA, from your take?
Mr. Ruger: Well, one thing in particular is Congress, I think, trying to insert itself into the Afghanistan withdrawal issue. And I think when you see Congress trying to make it harder for us to get out of a conflict than to get in, that’s a real challenge.
I think the framers wanted a constitution that made sure that it became difficult to go to war. But you could go to war when absolutely necessary for our interests. And that’s why Congress has a proper role to play in the decision to enter into a war, to pass a Use-of-Force Bill or a declaration of war.
But in this case, Congress is trying—through the NDAA—is trying to actually put some constraints on the President’s ability to get us out of a country like Afghanistan. And I think that’s a mistake here. The president needs the discretion here to be able to live up to the deal that the administration was able to achieve with the Taliban since the United States can, in a timely fashion, withdraw from that country and end America’s endless war and America’s longest war.
And I think that this is going to be a big part of President Trump’s legacy should the deal continue on as it is and we leave in May. And I think that that is something that would be regrettable—if Congress or someone else put a stop to this and continued on in this now almost two decades-long conflict.
Mr. Jekielek: So there’s been a lot of criticism, of course, around this idea to fully withdraw. What is the case to withdraw, and what do you say to people who think it’s a tragic mistake?
Mr. Ruger: Well, I think it’s good policy, and it’s good politics. And let me go through both of those. It’s good policy because the United States had three major objectives when we went into Afghanistan after 9/11. And this was a war that was justified for the United States to fight.
Well, we had three objectives that we needed to accomplish. First, we needed to punish the Taliban for its State support of Al-Qaeda, who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Secondly, we needed to decimate Al-Qaeda as an effective terrorist organization operating in that country with an intent and capability to harm us. And third, we needed to kill or capture Osama bin Laden.
We’ve accomplished all three of those goals. Right? The Taliban was deposed after 2001, after we went in in 2001. And they’ve been punished severely, suffering great casualties, great losses. And the fact is, is that they don’t want to have us come back should we withdraw. And I think they have an interest, for example, in making sure that Afghanistan is not a place where Al-Qaeda can launch attacks against the United States and its interests.
When it comes to Al-Qaeda itself, the Acting Secretary of Defense, when he was the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that Al-Qaeda had been decimated, right? And this goes all the way back; this view of U.S. government that Al-Qaeda has been really attrited in Afghanistan goes all the way back to, at least as far back as Leon Panetta, talking about the fact that they had been also hit pretty hard and not very effective as a fighting force themselves.
And then thirdly, obviously the U.S. Navy was able to accomplish the goal of the Bhagavad raid and killing Osama bin Laden. And so we’ve accomplished those goals.
And so I think that what happened instead is that we accomplished the goals of the war that we needed to fight, and then what we saw was mission creep, such that we added on to the war objectives well beyond what was needed. We added what we would like to see they’re, not what we needed to see. And the cost has been quite severe for the United States in terms of blood and treasure.
And now there are people who want us to continue to stay there because of those nice- to-have objectives, things like promoting our values, helping the government of Afghanistan improve—become a more capable apparatus to govern the country and to secure it. Those were nice-to-have things but not necessary things for us.
And unfortunately, we just don’t see a path forward to achieving those broaded objectives that really tier up to our safety and the conditions of our prosperity. And so it’s time to leave. And after two decades there, really, what else are we going to do to accomplish those things that we haven’t already tried?
And so I think it’s time to come home, especially given that we have a deal with the Taliban in which, again, they have not just an intent, they haven’t just declared an intention to make sure that Afghanistan isn’t a home of anti-American terrorism, but they have an interest in doing so because they don’t want us coming back.
They don’t want to have to face that onslaught that we did after 9/11, and they want to be able to have the future of Afghanistan being decided by Afghans, including themselves, without the Americans coming back in full force. So I think that this is a good deal that Ambassador Khalilzad has arranged and that the United States has committed itself to seeing through.
Mr. Jekielek: So one of the criticisms actually is that we would be giving up certain allies which we’ve made promises to, and that’s, I guess, bad politics or bad even from a values perspective?
Mr. Ruger: Well, in terms of the government of Afghanistan… look, we have done a great deal, have spent so much effort trying to help the government of Afghanistan get on its feet to become more capable to govern this country. And the question really is, at a certain point we have to wean that government off American support. And in the initial stages it means weaning them off the United States’ military, and that is the slow drawdown that we’re seeing. And then ultimately fulfilling the terms of our withdrawal plan.
But withdrawal militarily does not mean that we’re simply going to disengage from Afghanistan. The United States and its partners can continue to pursue economic assistance to the government to make sure that there is a carrot that we can use to help further the peace talks that are happening between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. That could be a great way for us to exercise some influence here at low cost to us.
And then we want to wean that, again, because we don’t want to create a dependent—either a security dependent or an economic dependent—in Afghanistan. It’s not the job of the American taxpayer to pay for the future of Afghanistan forever.
Now, when it comes to our European allies and other allies that have contributed to our efforts there. Again, the United States has borne most of the cost along with some of our close partners like Canada, France, the UK and others. But again, I think for the United States, it has to do what is in its interests.
And if other states want to pick up the ball and continue on the course that they’re on in Afghanistan, who are we to tell them what is in their interests? We would like them to respect our interest as a sovereign country, and we will respect theirs. And so if countries like Germany or others want to stay in Afghanistan, who are we to say they shouldn’t. But the United States has to do what is good for us. That is the role that our government plays, and is part of our social contract as a people with our government.
Mr. Jekielek: So more broadly speaking, you’re an advocate, as is coming through in what you’re seeing right now of the America First style foreign policy that the President has been pursuing over the last four years. And I guess I wanted to get you to speak to it in a broader sense. There’s been, of course, again, a lot of criticism of going away from the traditional model. I want to give you a chance to speak, where you feel there’s been wins and potentially losses as well, using this approach.
Mr. Ruger: Yeah, I think that this approach, whether it goes by the name America First or something more akin to realism and restraint, right?
Realism about the nature of the world, the constraints that any country faces, even a great power like us. and some of the key features of the international environment—think about geography; think about the nuclear revolution and what that has meant for American foreign policy and how the world today in the post-nuclear age or in the nuclear age is different than the pre-nuclear age; thinking about the balance of power and how it’s shaping up in Eurasia, particularly in Europe and in East Asia.
These are things that relate to what kind of approach we ought to take. And I think, given the realities of that world today, that means that we can pursue a grand strategy of restraint. One in which the United States is much more prudential in how it uses force abroad. One in which it is careful about committing and making security commitments to other countries, and really weighing whether those add to our security and the conditions of our prosperity or whether those things actually detract and give us a negative return on investment. We need to be much more careful.
And unfortunately, I think that since at least the end of the Cold War, the United States has pursued a grand strategy of primacy that has not been constructive of that. We fought way too many wars. We’ve gotten ourselves into conflicts that aren’t actually necessary for our safety or the conditions of our economic prosperity. And that has cost us greatly, right? In terms of thousands of American soldiers dead, tens of thousands wounded. In terms of massive expenditures of resources, trillions of dollars being spent.
When you think of wars like the Iraq War or Libya, our engagements in Syria, our engagements in nation-building in Afghanistan—these are all things that realism and restraint would counsel against. And again, it follows from this notion that realism says, “look, the world is as it is, we need to arrange our foreign policy consistent with that, consistent with those constraints and incentives”.
And that does mean that we need to have a strong national defense second to none. It means having a really strong military that can deter and defend against adversaries. And that means having a really strong Navy that can command the global commons. It means having a strong Air Force, a strong ability to protect our space resources. But it doesn’t mean having a big footprint in places like the Middle East, or expanding our security commitments.
People talk about potentially adding Ukraine or Georgia to NATO. That’s not something that’s going to lead to greater security on our part, but actually is going to help contribute to a potential for conflict that isn’t in our interests. And so we need to exercise greater prudentialism. And that’s really what realism and restraint is about, is more prudence than we’ve seen over the last 20 to 30 years.
Mr. Jekielek: So I guess, from what you’re saying, the realism and restraint isn’t necessarily opposed to peace through strength, right?
Mr. Ruger: Absolutely not. Realism counsels that the world could be a dangerous place. It’s an anarchic environment, where as one scholar put it, “There’s no 911.” The only 911 for the United States is the United States military, our diplomatic corps. Those are the people that are going to help secure us in a dangerous world, not someone else, and that’s why we have to have those capabilities.
For example, our nuclear posture, we need to have a strong deterrent capability that can just deter other countries that have nuclear weapons and can keep us safe from the potential for conventional attack, whether that’s Russia, or China, or someone else. It means we have to, like I said, have that strong naval capability.
But what it doesn’t mean is fighting wars that are only tangentially related to our interests or aren’t related to our vital national security interests at all. So wars for R2P [Responsibility to Protect] in Libya, or where we’re chain ganged into a war by our allies, which is also what some people think had happened with Libya. These aren’t really in our interest and we should very carefully leave those off the table in the future as we go forward.
Now, in terms of what we’ve seen over the last four years, I think one of the things that’s been successful with President Trump is really trying to push our allies to greater burden share, and I think a lot more can be done with that going forward. One of the worries I have about a President Biden would be that he would actually embrace our allies in a way that’s not productive to our security, but actually only continues to incentivize them to cheap ride or freeride off the American taxpayers.
Think about Europe, for example. The European Union countries are more prosperous and more populous than the United States, and yet we’re subsidizing their security. And if they don’t think that they need to do more to secure themselves, then they’re probably telling us what they think about the threats out there.
Maybe that means that we can pay less for that because the threat isn’t as dear, and if they’re not willing to defend themselves, why should American soldiers have to do it for them, especially given the nature of the world today, which the United States is actually a lot more secure than people would think. We have two oceans between us and the rest of the world, we have weak neighbors, we have a nuclear deterrent that is capable at deterring our enemies, we have lots of allies in the world.
The balance of power, especially in Europe, is not at risk. Germany is not at risk of being attacked anytime soon, or France, or the UK. So we’re in a position in which we can exercise more restraint, ask our allies to do more, and then also focus in on the most serious challenges ahead for us.
For example, China is a country that is a potential adversary, and is an adversary and is a partner in some ways, and we need to get our China policy right, and that should be a much bigger focus of our foreign policy than, for example, deciding what’s going to happen in terms of governance in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, or what’s going to happen in the conflicts on the Arabian Peninsula between Saudi Arabia and forces in Yemen.
We have to have a better focus on the things that are most important for our security, and we need to focus on domestic priorities because we’re a country that’s in the middle of a big pandemic. Obviously, we were spending more of our focus on building hospitals in Afghanistan than making sure that we had what we needed for a pandemic in America. So we need to also take into account that it’s not just our priorities abroad, but how do we balance appropriately our priorities in the United States domestically and what we need to do overseas.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned China briefly here, and China’s described often these days as an existential threat to America for its use of “Unrestricted Warfare” doctrine, essentially trying to subvert America and frankly, liberal democracy everywhere. What’s your take on the China threat?
Mr. Ruger: We have to have the confidence that our system is actually better than the Chinese, and it undoubtedly is. A system that respects freedom, both economic freedom and personal freedom, is a system that in the long run is going to beat all comers. And I firmly believe that. We ought to have confidence in that. We crushed the Soviet Union when it came to the ability to generate economic power, and that became a foundation for building the military power we needed to defend and deter against the Soviet Union.
It’s going to be the same thing with China. Our system is so much better. We don’t suffer from the kind of fear that the average Chinese citizen has. Again, we have problems ourselves when it comes to free expression, but our people can engage in scientific activities with the battle of ideas and we can get to a better solution without fear that the government is going to put you in jail.
We don’t have the same kind of massive surveillance state, although I do worry about the rise of surveillance in the United States. So we should be very careful that we don’t kill off this great liberal system that we have. We don’t have the same kind of malinvestment that you have when you have a state-directed economy. We have too much of the state’s role in our economic system for my taste—I’m a classical liberal. So clearly, I would like to see an even more robust market system that we even have.
But clearly, China is much worse off and I think that the ceiling that China has is a lot lower than a lot of people think, and it’s a lot lower than America’s. Again, we have our challenges, but the United States is still going to be the greatest country in the world in the 21st century, just like we were in the 20th, and I think that our abilities will be even better if we embrace liberalism, even more thoroughgoing liberalism, and we don’t try to replicate some of the practices that you’ve seen in other countries.
For example, I don’t think we have to have a national industrial policy. I think that the state-directed economy of the Chinese is actually going to create a lowering of their ceiling on their growth. Why would we want to replicate some of those things? China suffers from all kinds of problems domestically. So, again, I have faith in America.
I wrote a piece in the American Conservative that came out recently on this, that I think is titled, “Have Faith in America,” and it was premised upon a speech that President Coolidge gave called, “Have Faith in Massachusetts.” What I talked about in this piece is [that] we have problems, we have challenges in this country, and I would be the last person to be Panglossian about that. But we also shouldn’t be chicken littles.
I think what we have is a situation where we need to rededicate ourselves to our liberal democratic purpose, and really have confidence that the Chinese model is not a model for the future and is not a model for the success of the Chinese people.
Mr. Jekielek: Tell me a bit about some specific examples as you see of the success of this America First foreign policy.
Mr. Ruger: Like I said, pushing our European allies to greater burden-sharing is one, and really changing the rhetoric around, I think, our relationships and our role in the world. When President Trump talked at the UN about his job protecting American sovereignty and he understood that other countries had to do that as well, I think that’s a more realistic appraisal of international life.
When people talk about the alleged international liberal order, oftentimes there’s a mask of actually power politics, and competition, and trying to protect sovereignty behind that, as well as some idealism about the nature of America’s role in the world. I think what we need to do is really focus on being square with the American people about what we need to do in the world and how America’s role, United States’ role as a government, is to protect their interests, and I think that rhetorical shift has been a value of the Trump administration.
I would also say, both rhetorically in terms of some of its activities in the Middle East, concluding a deal with the Taliban to end America’s longest war, that’s a real contribution of an American interest focused Trump administration. I think at least talking more about how we need to end these endless wars has been helpful. Now, in some cases, we haven’t seen it being delivered, and some part of that is because even people within the Trump administration have gone against, I think, the president’s vision and instincts on the region.
You talk about some of the work that Jim Jeffrey did in Syria, were actually hiding information from the administration about what was actually happening on the ground there. That’s just not acceptable in a liberal democracy. Whether people like President Trump or not, he was duly elected by the American public and had an ability to make policy when it comes to Syria. It’s not Jim Jeffrey’s job to do that. I think that what the president really was harmed by, in many cases, were people that weren’t committed to his vision of America First, ending America’s endless wars, and that was, I think, unfortunate.
I do think when it comes to Asia, again, while talk of fire and fury, I think ratcheted up some tensions, the fact that President Trump engaged in personal diplomacy with North Korea, I actually think was of value. It was important to jaw jaw, not war war, and that’s important to engage with diplomacy, and I think that’s very helpful in trying to resolve some of these challenges that the United States does face around the world.
One of the things that I think will be in the first paragraph of President Trump’s biography, assuming that we make it until the end of this administration without going to war again, he’ll be the first president in the post-Cold War era not to start a new war. Again, the job of the American president isn’t to not start wars. The job of the American president is to help keep us safe and to meet our national interests. But the fact is that our national interests have been supported by us not going to war and this is going to be quite an accomplishment for this president.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned Syria. I would like to talk a little bit more about that because this is a similar situation in some ways, in my mind, to Afghanistan where I’ve heard a lot of talk about support for complete withdrawal from Syria, and at the same time, vociferous criticism of that, and again, this idea of leaving allies behind [whom] promises were made to. Can you speak to that, please?
Mr. Ruger: We don’t have any formal alliance commitments with anyone in Syria. The government of Syria is an adversary in many ways and not a good regime, and while we have partnerships with the Syrian Kurds, the fact is we do not owe them in the sense that we would a formal ally.
Also, I think we have to be careful [when] thinking about “abandoning” these allies or partners. The United States has a set of interests that it needs to support and advance, and when our interests change due to facts on the ground, or changes in the nature of the world, or changes in our prioritization, then our policies have to change as well.
A great historical example of this is the United States, its own nationhood, was supported by France. It is not incredulous to say that France was kind of part of the birthing of America in terms of its alliance during the Revolutionary War. But what happened in the 1790s under President Washington? The United States eventually decided that that alliance with France was not something that tiered up to our interests, and so the United States essentially decided to jettison those sets of commitments. And that did not make France happy, it did not make American supporters of France happy in this country.
If you’ve seen the musical, Hamilton, this was a big part of that first party struggle that was coming about between the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians, but when you read Washington’s Farewell Address, you read things like the Proclamation of Neutrality, Jay’s Treaty, the United States really shifted its approach based on a rational assessment of its interests, and we need to do the same thing in the world today.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t have alliances or partnerships, those could be valuable for us, and we don’t want to toss these overboard without great introspection about their short and long term value, but there are times in which we simply have to do what is necessary for us and you don’t want to have to pay cost to support things that were meant to actually reduce the cost to Americans.
I think that’s one of the reasons why, again, a clear-eyed-ness about this. It’s also why you want to be very careful in the beginning, and that goes back to what I said about Ukraine and Georgia. We shouldn’t be entering an alliance with these countries when it’s not in our interest to necessarily have to fight for them. I have two young boys, I don’t want them having to go overseas to fight for anything that isn’t connected to our direct national interests. And I think with a lot of these commitments, you see a disjuncture between our interests and our commitments.
Mr. Jekielek: Another of the very significant criticisms of the America First approach to foreign policy is the American, let’s say, withdrawal from multilateral institutions like the WHO, for example, or the UN Human Rights Commission, and in its place, a dictatorship like China can step in and increase its power and hurt America and its allies in that way. What are your thoughts about this?
Mr. Ruger: Well, I think that multilateral institutions, just like alliances, are things that aren’t either good or bad. It just depends. Our alliance with France was very important to our revolution, to our fight for independence. Our alliance with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom during World War II was incredibly important to defeating the Nazis. Our alliances that we started under NATO with countries like the UK and France, and others, these were very important if confronting the Soviet Union. So a lot of times they can be good.
The same thing with multilateral institutions. Multilateral institutions can be highly valuable. In terms of non-alliance multilateral institutions, they could be helpful. I think cooperating when it comes to global health problems, public health issues, true public health issues like pandemics, it’s important to have a forum for the United States to sit and to engage with those other countries, and to find solutions to common problems.
The problem was when multilateral institutions aren’t doing what they’re meant to be or could be potentially harming American interests, and then we have to take a second to look at those. I think when it comes to things like human rights, you oftentimes see multilateral institutions being populated by countries that have just no credibility when it comes to respecting the kind of liberal rights that we have embraced in our country since at least 1776, in fact, way before that, as part of the tradition, the liberal tradition that had emerged in Europe and that has now spread across the world in many places.
We don’t want to have to necessarily swallow our principles when it comes to engagement with international institutions simply to be a member of those. We should be very critical of those institutions when it is required. I think part of our role in the world is not just military power or diplomacy, it’s also to be an exemplar to the rest of the world in terms of our desire to perfect our liberal democracy here at home, and to stand for those liberal values when it comes to using our bully pulpit, to be able to say where we think a country has gone awry and what we stand for as a country.
In the case of China, we clearly should be able to say, “Look, we don’t think the way that the Chinese are engaging domestically [is right] in terms of surveillance or in terms of how they’re treating minority populations, or how they’re not securing the rights of their own citizens.” We should feel free to say those things as need be, but obviously, also try to encourage the better angels of other countries to find paths forward where we might be able to work together to promote those things.
Mr. Jekielek: One thing then is on my mind, the U.S. has been, I think, unarguably very, very important in brokering these Abraham Accords, these sort of peace agreements between Israel and other countries. What kind of a role, in the foreign policy schema that you’re describing, does America have for doing these kinds of things? Because ostensibly, this is something that is, or at least arguably is, helping global peace efforts, although of course there has been criticism of that as well.
Mr. Ruger: Diplomacy is an important tool in the statecraft toolkit. So realism and restraint actually relies more on diplomacy maybe than primacy does, because primacy so frequently utilizes military power, wouldn’t say the only tool, but it sees it’s playing such an important role, and the United States, it’s always where are the carriers, not where are the diplomats.
So I think that actually, under realism and restraint, diplomacy is critical. Trying to facilitate arrangements in the world that are good in and of themselves but also good for American interest is something we should applaud.
And so when it comes to trying to find paths forward in the Middle East that will help stability and help peaceful relationships between those countries. Those are good things. The same thing in other regions of the world. So again, realism and restraint is very much an engagement strategy. In fact, in many ways, it’s a new way to engage internationally as opposed to the way we have, which has been too much focus on expanding security commitments, military power, fighting wars, democracy promotion with the sword.
We should be doing things again where we’re engaging, and oftentimes we’re not talking enough about trade, for example, and how trade can facilitate American interests, about how actually people to people relationships, non governmental organizations, about how those are productive of American interests as well. I think that oftentimes, we have just understated that over the last 20-30 years.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re making me think about the Iran nuclear deal here. A centerpiece of Trump’s foreign policy has been the quick withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and then exerting a kind of maximum pressure on Iran. How does that square with the approach that you’re describing?
Mr. Ruger: The Iran nuclear deal had its positive sides and some of its less positive sides. Diplomacy is difficult. In diplomacy, you don’t get everything you want but you do try to achieve everything you need, and I would be the last person to say that it was a perfect deal.
However, what I think that we do need going forward, no matter what happens as far as the next four years, is that we need to have a situation in which we can meet our interests in terms of providing the incentives for Iran not to feel that it needs nuclear weapons, and also avoiding some of the spiral mechanisms that you might see with a more aggressive approach to that country. So we do need diplomacy here to find a path forward that can work for us.
The thing about any type of cooperation is it’s trying to adjudicate differences. We can try to adjudicate those differences, or we can be in a situation we’re in now, which is maybe not the most desirable one, or a situation that would be even less desirable than the current one, which would be actually going to war over this. I, for example, think this would be a massive mistake. It would be adding another endless war that would be costly and also unnecessary. United States doesn’t need to engage in a regime-change war against Iran for us to stay safe and prosperous.
We were talking about the recently concluded deals between Israel and other countries. That’s actually created even greater stability and cooperation among countries in the Middle East, and that probably means that we can step even further back from our footprint there in that region, knowing, for example, that our partner in the region, Israel, is a strong one, is safe, and now has its own partners that are now formal, in the region.
So I think that the United States, again, rather than ratcheting up pressure, could actually try to engage in greater diplomacy and finding a path forward that reduces our exposure in the region.
Mr. Jekielek: But at the same time is realist, that’s your argument throughout, right?
Mr. Ruger: Yes. Again, looking at the world squarely. In the world as it is, you can’t get the other side to simply capitulate to everything you want unless you’re willing to use the ultimate sanction of warfare. You have to find a path forward in which there are compromises, and if you’re not willing to live with those compromises, then war is an option in the world that we live in, but is that a cost worth paying for the ends that we’re trying to achieve as opposed to what we might achieve with diplomacy?
I think that’s again why we should have greater prudentialism here. I think that the lamp of experience tells us that our record in the Middle East fighting wars, regime-change wars, is not a good one, and we can’t just have this fallacy that things will just go better next time without a lot of the same challenges we’ve faced. I think that would be a massive error here.
Mr. Jekielek: With a prospective Biden presidency, what happens in terms of our relationship with Iran?
Mr. Ruger: My prediction would be that, especially given that a lot of the people that have been mentioned as joining a Biden administration, these are people who are from the Obama world, and so I think a lot of them will want to see another diplomatic agreement on nuclear issues with Iran. The question is whether they’ll get one that’s better than the one that they had or worse. As an American, I obviously hope that they will be able to utilize some of the things that have happened over the last several years in a way that’s productive, and that the United States will get a better agreement, but they will also have some of the virtues of the previous agreement even though it was an imperfect one.
Mr. Jekielek: What about with the prospect of the Trump presidency continuing, what do you expect will happen there?
Mr. Ruger: I would hope that President Trump, being a dealmaker, being someone who has helped broker these deals between Israel and other countries in the Middle East, being someone that tried to do diplomacy and ultimately did ratchet down tensions in North Korea, someone who has concluded a historic arrangement with the Taliban to end America’s longest war, that this is someone who would like to find a deal.
And I’d like to see that happen. I think that would be preferable [as opposed to] continuing to ratchet up the pressure and ultimately leading to a physical conflict even greater than what we’ve already seen. I do worry about a spiral into that. Again, I just don’t think that the president himself would like to see a war on his watch. That isn’t something that would be in our interest.
Mr. Jekielek: Any final thoughts before we finish up, Will?
Mr. Ruger: I guess what I would say is that I’m really hopeful about the future of realism and restraint in the United States, and I would say that for several reasons. One is that the world is changing and I think Americans understand that. I think they understand that we’ve had these experiences over the last two decades, that we’ve done a lot of what we needed in the Middle East, in terms of punishing actors responsible for 9/11.
I think we better understand that we have to be able to collect intelligence and target groups like Al Qaeda that we were not in the 1990s, so that we can get a handle on counterterrorism but at the same time reducing our footprint in these places. I think when it comes to Europe, these are wealthy, prosperous countries, very populace as well.
I think Americans know that we have so many needs here at home that we do need to pivot away from some of our overarching, smothering approach to Europe where we’re always having to take the lead. I think they recognize that what we need to be taking the lead in is our domestic priorities, getting our own house in order, dealing with the aftereffects of the pandemic, dealing with some of the problems we face here in terms of the wicked polarization that we’re seeing, getting our country back together again, and then also focusing in on the on the biggest challenges.
I think that the 21st century challenges are going to come more from Asia than they are from the Middle East or from Europe, and I think that we should have a greater focus of our attention there, which is again, not to say that we need Cold War II, but we need to have a realistic approach to the rise of China.
We need to also remember that a lot of what we can do is defense and deterrence, and so that means maintaining a strong military, but also making sure we’re using diplomacy to meet our ends and not reaching for the sword as quickly as we did over the last two or three decades, oftentimes to our ruin.
The other thing I would say too on the domestic front when it comes to the future of realism and restraint is that there just are a lot more people who agree with realism, who have looked at the world the way realists do and concluded that restraint is a better option.
You think about some of the groups out there that just didn’t exist 5-10 years ago, [such as] Defense Priorities, for example, [or] a group like the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. You look at the new American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. You look at some of the university-based centers that the Charles Koch Foundation has been happy to support, like Notre Dame, MIT, Harvard, and others that are really educating Americans about the nature of the world and trying to look at innovative approaches to our future.
There’s just a lot more people doing that, and I think a lot more recognition that this has to be part of the conversation in a way it just was not in the early 2000s. You think about the lead up to the Iraq War, a huge debacle, probably the biggest own goal in America’s recent history. There just wasn’t a robust marketplace of ideas in which these ideas were being challenged regularly by people who had a greater sense of realism.
There was a famous advertisement in the New York Times before the Iraq War by a group of realists. I really encourage people to look at that. But that was really a very small voice at the time. Now, I think the forces of realism and restraint are much more vociferous, and I think they’re connected to the American people where they are. So in polling, you’ve seen upwards of three quarters of Americans, including veterans, supporting getting out of some of these wars like in Afghanistan. You see massive, I think, support for pushing on alliance burden-sharing.
So the American people have a stronger sense, I think, of wanting to have a different approach to the world, and I think there’s more of an institutionalized set of groups and powerful ideas that they’re promoting and developing to challenge that primacist stance that is really not only counsel for American hegemony actively around the globe, but has had a hegemony in the marketplace of ideas after 9/11, even back into the 90s. I think that that is no longer the case. There’s a different balance of power, if you will, in the marketplace of ideas.
Mr. Jekielek: Will Ruger, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Ruger: Thank you for having me, and it’s great to talk about realism and restraint.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.